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Aviation Report Card 2004

Another area of concern among experts is screener training. Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, an aviation safety advocacy group, and a member of the TSA's Aviation Security Advisory Committee, calls inadequate training one of the three most urgent problems facing the system. According to the TSA, screeners get 40 hours of classroom instruction before starting work; they must also pass a test and undergo 60 hours of on-the-job training. While this represents a significant increase over the 10 hours of classroom instruction most screeners got before 9/11, Hudson still believes it's not enough. He thinks screeners should get 30 days' worth of training, noting that a prison guard in New York State, for example, receives that amount. He declined to discuss specifically how the additional training could improve matters, citing security reasons, though one possibility might be the introduction of intuitive passenger screening—a strategy used in Israel and some European countries, and being tested at Boston Logan—in which screeners question passengers and read body language to identify suspicious travelers.

Technology
The second major way to improve screening is, of course, getting effective, state-of-the-art systems in place to detect explosives, weapons, and potential problem passengers. This has been an area of concern since 2001: the high-tech CT scanners that Congress mandated all checked bags pass through are still not universally in use, and much of the rest of the screening equipment relies on decades-old technology. To be fair, the government has been testing a slew of new technologies, but the certification process is woefully slow. The National Safe Skies Alliance, a private nonprofit group that gets funding from the TSA, has done field tests of vapor detectors that find explosives in carry-on baggage, special scanners that can identify liquid in a container without opening it, and "zone" metal detectors, which let screeners know where metal is on a person's body.

According to a spokeswoman, Safe Skies tests equipment with "real people, real lighting conditions, real architecture," but does not disclose results. The technology receiving the most buzz now in aviation circles is a walk-through portal made by GE Ion Track in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Affectionately called "the puffer," the portal has a hood that captures the plume of heat that naturally rises off a person's body; it then puffs jets of air which shake loose particles. The machine vaporizes the particles, gives them a charge, and measures how fast the ions are traveling. Using that speed, screeners can identify the presence of banned substances, such as explosives.

The portal is already being used at U.S. nuclear power plants and has been tested at foreign airports, including London's Heathrow. It was also part of the TSA's rail-security pilot program in New Carrollton, Maryland, this spring. (At press time, the TSA was evaluating those results.) In June, the TSA announced that it would start testing the portal over the summer at five airports: San Diego, Tampa, Rochester, Gulfport-Biloxi, and Providence. Select passengers will pass through a portal after walking through metal detectors, and the TSA will gauge the portal's efficacy, as well as whether its use will increase wait times or otherwise inconvenience passengers.

This is a promising step, and the first time the TSA is testing such technology at U.S. airports. If approved, however, the question of cost remains. This fiscal year, Congress appropriated $155 million for new security technology; the "puffers" sell for $132,000 apiece, so there may be enough cash in this year's budget to purchase scores of them.

Other technologies, such as biometric ID's that could more accurately confirm a passenger's identity, are years away from widespread use; they're currently being tested (see "Biometrics: The Eye in the Sky," page 184). The notion of national ID cards that would incorporate a biometric element, such as an iris scan or fingerprints, has been tabled. The State Department has said it plans to begin issuing biometric passports in late 2005, but since they will be available only to those who are renewing, it will take at least 10 years for all passports to incorporate biometric features.

CAPPS II, the much-ballyhooed second-generation Computer Assisted Passenger Profile System, is being abandoned, after negotiations between the government, European Commission officials, and privacy advocates revealed it to be unworkable. That leaves a weakness: the passenger-profiling system that was in place on 9/11 remains essentially unchanged, and its effectiveness has been compromised, since once-classified "trigger" criteria—such as buying a one-way ticket—are now widely known. The TSA says it might unveil an alternative to capps ii sometime this year.

The Net-Net
At press time, the summer of 2004 was gearing up to be the biggest test yet of new screening procedures, with air-passenger volume expected to match or exceed pre-9/11 levels for the first time since the attacks. Despite all the scanning, wanding, and shoe removing, screening has not changed dramatically. Security is tighter: air marshals on some flights, secure cockpits with armed pilots, and K-9 patrols represent real progress. But among experts, there is a sense that new procedures for screening introduced after 9/11 that were supposed to be temporary are slowly becoming permanent. Others have been eliminated altogether. That is not what anyone, from Congress to the flying public, had in mind three years ago. It's time to start closing the gaps.

Washington, D.C.-based journalist Barbara Benham reports frequently on security issues for Travel + Leisure.

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